The Library is an Idea Not a Building (Fall 2014)

yalsa futures report coverReading through the articles in the fall 2014 issue of YALS I’m once again struck about the new role that libraries and library staff play in serving the community. That role is one that takes library staff out of their buildings into schools AND a wide-array of community partner locations from homeless shelters to parks to community centers to meals sites to….. Thinking about that external focus and external connections that libraries have with their communities I more and more see that the library is an idea and not a physical space.

I think about the need to focus on the library as more than a physical space every time I hear someone say, “Let’s go talk to teens at the community center so that then they will come into the library to see us.” Or when I see that what library staff bring to outreach events, are materials that require teens, and others, to come into the library. To be honest I cringe a little bit when I hear those statements and see those focus points at outreach events. Why do we have to be so place focused?

The question for me is, what is the idea of the library that we can use to serve teens successfully in 2014 and beyond? I think that actually answers are in YALSA’s Future of Library Services for and With Teens: A Call to Action report. The ideas expressed in much of that report take the physical out of the library and focus on the ideas of how we serve teens successfully. For example the report notes the:

  • Importance of supporting teen workforce development needs. Helping teens gain skills so that they can apply for jobs and prepare for careers doesn’t have to take place in a library physical space. It can happen virtually through the digital resources we provide, and it can also happen by helping teens to make connections to experts who can assist them in career decisions. It can also happen by sponsoring workshops on career choices in external locations, outside of the library’s physical building.
  • Ways in which digital literacy skills are valuable in teen lives and the role library staff can play in helping adolescents hone those skills. That doesn’t have to happen in a physical library. It could happen at a community event with teens getting a chance to try out digital tools the library has on tablets and talking with library staff about the use of the digital tools. Conversations about safe and smart technology use don’t have to happen within a library space.
  • Value of providing connected learning experiences for teens. Connected learning is all about giving learners the chance to connect to their passions and interests through a variety of experiences from peer interactions to expert feedback to digital and physical content. That learning and those connections do not have to happen in a library building. They can take place virtually through Google Hangouts, discussions on Twitter, or by watching YouTube videos. Library staff can connect teens to what they need without every seeing the teens in the library.

I know that for many library staff bringing people of any age into the library is an end-goal. I don’t think that physical libraries shouldn’t exist. I know there are lots of teens who want to get together with others to talk about or to play their favorite games. I know there are lots of teens who would like to have a place to teach others how to code apps and the library can be that place. I know there are lots of teens who want to get together to talk about books that they are reading. But, what if when we went out into the community and talked with teens and others about the library we didn’t concentrate on the building and what we can do inside the building? What if we simply listened to what teens need and then talked about all we can bring to them digitally or physically outside of the library space? Would that change the dynamic? Would a world of possibilities open up?

Ask yourself what is the idea of a library? Is it the actual space that library staff and customers inhabit? Or, is it something that goes beyond the space? If the latter, how can we embrace that and show teens and the community that we are much more than our physical buildings? Ideas anyone?

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